My hands are shaking. Why are my hands shaking? They never do this. My breathing's too fast. Am I nervous? I never get nervous. Alright Brad, you've put too much work into getting to this position to freak yourself out. Buckle down, get in control, and do what you do best.
So did you bring your A game today, Mr. Boss? Sucks we have to play in the very first round, but they never said this was going to be easy. Luckily for me, I have you figured out. You don't have any super powers. You just prey on fear. Somehow, someway you get even the most accomplished players to believe whatever you want, but not me. Not today, anyway. I know you aren't the boogeyman under my bed or the monster in my closet. You are just a guy with seven cards, and you won't always have the right ones. I'm sorry I have to do this, but Hero's Downfall has three modes this weekend.
(Exit Tom Ross)
For the past two months my entire reality revolved around qualifying for the StarCityGames Players' Championship, and there wasn't going to be a person able to stop me from achieving it. In fact, anyone that even attempted to keep me from succeeding would find themselves falling short. I promised myself I would qualify for this tournament no matter what and knew it to be fact.
I simply wanted it more than anyone else.
This wasn't the case for the entire season. For most of the year I didn't really care about the event. I just saw it as yet another tournament series promoting hamster wheel mentality. I couldn't see myself grinding all year long to eventually fall short much like my Pro Tour career has in the past few years. Each season I was just shy of the expected goal. When I wanted Gold, I was forced to settle for Silver and grind out each qualification as they presented themselves. Once even Gold wouldn't satisfy my hunger, it became all that was offered. The years had gotten to me, and I was fed up with reaching for the stars only to realize they're just old light. I became jaded.
I was unaccountable for my personal success. My downfall wasn't an inability to succeed, but the desire to do so. Unable to continuously keep the tank full, the drive was never a constant. The fire that fueled me once before in my career had been smothered.
(Enter Todd Anderson)
This all changed when I finally had a co-pilot for commiseration. Now Todd might not seem like the best choice for a supporting character to most, but nobody knows him the way I do. The heart in his chest is unmatched by anyone I have yet to cross paths with. Unlike me, he is driven by passion, but lacks the direction I possess. Together we would battle above the clouds and reach the peaks we so desperately desired. We started to want it more than anyone else.
"Round two pairings are…"
Well well, look who we have here. Why isn't it my bearded brethren himself. I understand you pull power from your facial hair, but this isn't the battle you want to be in. You may have come into this tournament looking for glory, but I sat down lusting for blood. I hope the best for you with the rest of the event, but you won't be finding the stepping stone needed to get to the next round unscathed. I just hope this doesn't hurt too much.
(Exit Chris VanMeter)
Qualifying for the Players' Championships wasn't going to be easy. Spiking an event or two would be optimal, but the most crucial asset was determination. Points add up quickly, making it difficult to take a week off. We decided to commit to the remaining season and packed our bags for Minneapolis. The flights were expensive, but the points were priceless. We showed up ready and willing to grind out every match in the event and did exactly that. We started the grind.
Traveling week in and week out became difficult. I started to feel the warm light at the end of the tunnel get closer and closer, but the trek was starting to take its toll. I was left relying on Todd to continuously fill the tank needed to continue, even though I was the one with less distance to cover. His drive and passion kept me committed to the task. We just had to keep playing.
"Feature matches for this round…"
Why hello SMann. You're doing great so far. Off to a 2-0 start with a decently positioned deck. All you have to do now is beat me and you get to go all the way to the Top 8. You could kick your feet up and relish in the fact that you already made it to the second day of competition after only playing three short rounds. Wouldn't that be awesome? Wait, that would be awesome! I want that! Good thing I playtested against W/U Heroic this week for about six hours. Game after game I watched Ordeal of Thassa's trigger until I knew every little thing I needed to for this matchup. Now it isn't the best matchup for me in the room, but it is the one I have the most experience with. How well do you know Sidisi and her horde of walking dead?
(Exit Steve Mann)
The weeks went on and the reality of succeeding grew closer. I was now in the thick of things with enough points to feel secure. All I had to do was maintain and the qualification was mine. Sadly this wasn't the case for my other half. Todd had fallen behind. The weeks of near misses had gotten to him, and he didn't see a way to qualify outside of winning the Season Four Invitational. He decided that the last couple Opens weren't worth it and put all of his eggs in one basket. I packed my bags for Portland while he focused on preparing for his Alamo. We at least had a plan.
I further cemented my qualification with a second place finish in Portland. Gerry Thompson being the good friend he was conceded in the semifinals so that I would be as close to a mathematical lock as possible. Awkwardly enough, I didn't want him to do this, but I understood bigger forces were at play. Gerry cared more about me playing in the Players' Championships than him hoisting a trophy that day.
I gracefully accepted his concession and thanked him for being a truly great friend.
The following week wasn't as good. Without Todd to keep the focus up, I found myself slacking. I finally secured my slot in the Players' Championships, but the long journey had left me exhausted. Instead of buckling down and preparing for the Invitational, I simply chose not to. Instead I just hung out in Seattle all week and didn't do much of anything. It ended in me scrubbing out with two poorly built decks. This was the first tournament I didn't cash since I started the journey to the Players' Championship.
Todd, on the other hand, was full of the fire. He wanted it so badly, but sadly came up short. The look of defeat on his face was heart breaking. Two rounds into day two and the dream was already dead once he picked up his fourth loss. I felt bad, but knew there was nothing I could do but keep spirits high. Oddly enough, he didn't need any of that. He just wanted to finish out strong and make some cash. He was content to grind out some old light.
"I might be in," he said to me after his last round. Somehow, someway the pairings landed perfect for Todd to sneak into the top 8. A surge of electricity rushed over my body as I may be seeing the first step to having my co-pilot in the event with me next week. All I wanted was to hear his name before the cheering stopped. I couldn't dream of a better way to spend my evening than to test his matchups all night long. Again, I felt the fire that I let tapper off…
"And in ninth place..."
"Got em!" Todd shouted at me as he opened the door. We hug and bask in day one's success. Sitting down to watch coverage of an event I am still in is surreal. My day is over, yet I get to see who I will be playing against tomorrow. This tournament has these poor bastards grasping at straws while I've got my legs up and a cold one in my hand. It sure feels good to be great at Standard.
The gamer mindset quickly shifts to that of any spectator. Someone is about to get eliminated and there is no way I am going to miss it! The back of my chair becomes vacant as I lean in to see who is going to draw the short straw and end up going home. For now, I bask in the fact that it won't be me. Not yet anyway.
I got back into Roanoke late Monday night to find out decklists were due Thursday at noon. I understood why they needed them so early, but I felt slighted that I spent so much time trying to qualify for this event and now was rushed during the preparation process. Metagaming for a sixteen-player event is much different than for any other tournament. On top of that, the structure was so off the wall that it was difficult to fully grasp how to approach it. I felt lost and alone as I scoured the internet for clues to what I thought the other fifteen players were going to do, and in turn, what I should be playing.
The biggest difference for this event and others is that Magic Online wasn't going to be the greatest tool for preparation. I simply couldn't just jam a bunch of games to get a feel for what I needed to be doing. Every matchup against a deck I didn't expect was a waste of time, and I quickly realized I needed help. Luckily and surprisingly, Todd was ready to go to bat for me. He gladly put his own things aside for the moment and picked up deck after deck to do battle. We played every matchup I expected to play against until I felt comfortable. He never said no. He never gave up. He never let me do anything half-way.
On the other side of the country I had Gerry ready to battle me on Magic Online. He had been extensively testing the matchups that deserved only the greatest of adversaries to do battle against. Odds were that Reid Duke was going to be playing something similar to what Gerry had been mastering, which would mean I would need a highly skilled test partner to give me the best chance of beating the best in the world. He was just that.
Knowing how to wield the weapon was one thing, but making sure it was sharp enough to pierce skin was equally as important. I wasn't that familiar with Sultai Reanimator before this week, but I knew that Sultai Charm was going to be well-positioned, making it the best deck to due battle with. I called up Josh Utter-Leyton and Willy Edel for coaching and was not disappointed with their sage advice. They helped me craft a great 74 for this event and bestowed the confidence needed to go into battle unafraid. I say 74 due to Gerry convincing me to add a twenty-fourth land last minute.
Time was running short, and tensions were high. It was do or die time and I needed to submit my decks. I double and triple checked them to make sure I didn't screw something up. I had to have stared at those two decklists for over an hour. I didn't know if I was looking for a mistake or a revelation. Neither presented themselves, so with a sigh of both relaxation and defeat, I looked to my bed for some much needed rest.
Why can't I sleep? I never have difficulty sleeping. I should be tired after such a stressful day one. Sure I only played three rounds of Magic, but they were intense! I also had to stomach watching so many friends have do or die moments while I got to curl up on the couch. Man this tournament is intense! I can't believe how awesome it is. Every match, whether I am in it or not, has been amazing.
Wait, no, Brad you have to go to sleep! You can do this in the morning, but for now you need to get some rest. You don't want to throw it all away because you didn't get any rest before the final day of the year. You've been working towards this for months now. Just go to sleep and deal with this in the morning.
What in the hell is going on with Gerard's deck? I mean, I understand that he must have thought only Stoneforge Mystic was going to be in the room, but no Force of Wills anywhere? Hell, Joe Lossett even showed up with a combo deck. Talk about misevaluating the metagame.
What are you doing? Go to sleep already. Don't do this to yourself. Take a melatonin and just drift off. I know, maybe if I count sheep. I don't know if it works, but it's better than dissecting this tournament all night long.
Sheep number 1... Sheep number 2... Sheep num...wait a minute. What am I thinking?!
Goat number 1... Goat number 2... Goat number 3...
There was no going back now. My decks were registered and locked. All that could be done was wait patiently as the minutes ran down until eventually the tournament started. Players began rolling into town and activities were quickly being lined up. Part of me wanted to get some face time with the other competitors, but my conscience was telling me to keep preparing. Even though I couldn't change a card, I still wanted to know both of my decks on the deepest level possible. I didn't want to give up testing. I just didn't know what I still needed to prepare against and who would put up with some more testing. I timidly asked Todd to go above and beyond once more.
"Sure man, you'd do it for me," was the response given when I asked to test fringe matchups that I couldn't even guarantee would show up. Again, we sleeved up some decks and did battle on his kitchen table. Kali Anderson in the background making sure we had full bellies and wet whistles, we did battle for most of the day.
Testing for long periods of time when decks couldn't shift was a strange experience. My mind would constantly go to altering my decks ever so slightly, but then the shocking realization that I couldn't would sweep over me. For a hot minute I would panic, but quickly realized that everyone else was under the same restraints and probably felt the same way. I had to wrap my head around finding a way for this 75 to function. We worked hard on finding every sideboard configuration available and called it a week.
Most of the contestants were in town by this time, and plans to meet for a pregame dinner were in order. I took Todd to the restaurant early to split a pitcher and finally get some time to hang out with my best friend without any stress. We didn't speak of Magic once, because we didn't have to. We already exhausted the subject. I was ready.
No alarm? What time is it? Did I oversleep? Oh no, am I late?
"Beep beep beep."
The energy was already running through me. Yesterday was intense, but today it would be deafening. Excitement began engulfing my body. Before I can even reach the bathroom my game face had already taken form. The energy rushing through my body reached max capacity, and I was forced to get it all out. Uncontrollably, I let out a boisterous battle cry directed towards my reflection.
"I remember this man in the mirror, but I haven't seen him in a while. When did we last meet? San Juan? No, it wasn't San Juan. Amsterdam? No, not there either. Paris? That's right, it was Paris. We met right before I played seven games for Player of the Year. Well it has been a long time old friend, glad you could show up for me today."
As I drove to the site, I realized how wrong I was about this tournament. Only one day and three rounds in, and I can easily say it is the most exhilarating tournament I have ever been a part of. I can't believe I'm going to have to eat my words and tell Evan how amazing this event is after all the negativity I previously voiced about it. I guess I can't always be right.
"Can I have the floor?" I asked the table of nearly twenty as we dined the night before the event. "Who wants to give $500 of first place's money to whoever gets screwed over the worst by the rules in this stupid tournament?" Everyone laughed at my joke, but also shifted the conversations to exactly how they felt about the tournament structure. We all agreed that it needed some work and that this event might end up being extremely awkward for most parties. We all shrugged since there was nothing we could do but participate. It's easy to do so when at least one of us was going to win. We enjoyed each other's company and shared stories from days passed. Anything to keep our minds off of the pressure we would feel once the event had started.
"In Pod A, we start with Gerard Fabiano."
A pin can be heard as the eight of us stand waiting for the pods to form. Tensions run high as we all silently pray we don't get stuck with bad matchups. Each and every one of us slowly realizing that this tournament was, in fact, the most intense event we have ever played. That it was a much better experience than we predicted.
All I can hope is to be put in the same pod as two great matchups, as well as dodge my best friend's left in the event. I just need a little luck and everything will be alright.
This isn't how I wanted to start off the day. The last time I played against you wasn't a pleasant one. Good thing you have made the gravest of mistakes. It's quite miraculous for me that you showed up with this new toy. How well do you know this one, my dear friend? You would have struck fear into my eyes with your prized archetype, but I have nothing to be scared of anymore. Visions of me losing this event always included you activating a Top, but now I have all the tools needed to leave you sitting and spinning yourself.
(Exit Joe Lossett)
The next round is up already? That was barely any time for me to unwind! And on top of that, I'm up against you? Well the pressure's on, I guess. You have bested me in the past, but luckily I know you are just as scared of me as I am of you. This situation is exactly why I have chosen this deck. With anything else in my hands you would feel confident, but this is the one deck I can strike fear into your eyes with. At any moment I can end the match, and you know that. It's time for me to Show you a thing or two.
(Exit Brian Braun-Duin)
Just one more match and I am back into Standard. Given how the structure works, I could even get some testing in during my four-hour break. It would be better for me to keep grinding and not ice myself before the top 4. I wonder if I can get Todd to build Gerard's and Reid's deck and battle with me for a couple hours. I might be able to convince him to do that!
The day had finally come. Round one of the Players' Championships was a mere three hours away, and I had done everything I could to be ready. I grabbed my phone and saw a surprising email from Todd.
"Here is everything you need to know about sideboarding."
The contents included everything he could think of that I might have missed. Strategy, sideboard guides, and opinions of what my opponents might do. Some of the information had already been engrained into my head, but some found its way to the back of my score pads. I couldn't believe that after all the work he had already put in for me, that he was continuously striving to get me the trophy. Almost as if he was living vicariously through me, he did everything in his power to make sure that I would be wielding the best parts of both of our games this weekend. He wanted more than anyone else, and I wanted to validate his hard work. I was going to fight until there wasn't any fight to be fought.
I lost? How could I lose? If I had to pick one matchup to win, it would be this exact one. Now I have to stay and play a playoff against someone instead of continuing my preparation at Todd's house. How could I have let this happen? What did I do wrong? I guess let's find out who I will be playing against. Maybe I will get a good matchup.
I watched tentatively as Reid Duke and Tom Ross did battle. The entire room was silent as these two titans faced off for the third time this season in this matchup. Steve Mann stood to my left wanting the same conclusion as I. If Tom won that would mean I would face off against the SMann himself in our elimination round, but if he lost I would be against my good friend once again, while Steve's tournament was over. We all had something on the line.
Like two animals forced to fight, Tom and I sit quietly awaiting our call to center stage. Neither of us talks. We sit and tamper with our phones. Other points in my life I would try to get myself away from the situation mentally, but not today. I spend all my time theory crafting situations that might come up and how he is going to sideboard. I talk to Todd on the phone in preparation for the match. I need guidance, I need faith, I need to defeat my friend once again. Will I see a different Tom Ross than yesterday, or have all these beatings left your spirits weakened? I'll take any edge I can get, and I hope the five beatings you've already taken stay with you like ghosts from your past. Just hold onto them for one more round Tom. I need you to stay shaken up.
(Exit Tom Ross)
My pre-tournament rituals oddly changed. For the first time ever, I would be playing in a major event, but in my backyard. This meant I would wake up in my own bed, use my own shower, and get to go to the same Starbucks I always go to for coffee. I also was up far earlier than I needed to be. I got out of bed, and almost like I wasn't in control of myself, went for a walk. I don't know why I did this, but I just needed to find my center for this tournament. Maybe it was the long months that got me here. It could also be that no matter what happens this weekend, my year is over and the story is cemented. This journey will be complete, and I need to experience the moment before it all goes away. It truly is a now or never moment. I sat down on the bench and checked my phone.
"I have a little more time to relax."
"You have to get seated now! There are 17,000 people watching, and I am not running a deck tech. Let's give the people what they came to see!"
I knew I was going to have to get through you sooner or later to win this tournament. You might be the crowd's pick to win the tournament, but the crowd's not inside my head. If they knew how badly I wanted this, there would be no cheers for you. They would realize it was a lost cause. You were better than me yesterday, even better than me today, and you will be better than me tomorrow, but I have a super power you aren't aware of. I have this ability to manifest whatever outcome I believe will happen. Truly believe. Undoubtedly believe. Know the fact. Today that fact is I am winning this tournament. Only Brian Braun-Duin has stifled this super power in the past, but he has been eliminated. All that stops me now is myself. I have lost matches to you in the past where your skill has gotten inside my head, but not today Mr. Duke. Today I will be taking that trophy home.
(Exit Reid Duke)
There is no time to spare. I have five minutes before the finals starts and I need to prepare. Coffee? Check! Water? Check! Wisdom bestowed upon me from Gerry Thompson? I guess I should call him first.
I spend the five minutes outside with Gerry going over the subtle differences between the two Sultai Reanimator lists. I just have to make sure that I miss nothing in the finals. I'm not letting Gerard be the only thing that kept me from winning this event. He bested me earlier in the day, but I fully expect to be getting my chips back.
"Good luck," he says to me as he extends his hand to the middle of the table.
Good luck to you as well.
(Fade to Black)
I was the first contestant to get to the StarCityGames Center. All of the directors, judges, commentators, and media were running around frantically as they prepared to put on the show of the year. I sat there alone and watched them all scurry around the room as they tried to get everything ready. All of them with a task at hand but me. Almost invisible I sat there waiting for someone to say something. I just waited for someone to say action.
I turn around to see Todd Anderson and Tom Ross hanging on the rails behind me. What are you guys doing here? Oh, I guess I just won this thing. Oh yeah, I won this thing and you guys are happy for me. Alright, here are some hugs, but I am going to need a while before I can get extroverted again. Much like the movie Inception, I went too many layers deep and am going to need a while before I can get out of gamer mode. I just need to make sure I don't sound like a robot during this interview.
Just do all those things you always do in the Versus Videos and you'll be fine.
I take a collected moment to thank Todd for all his hard work. I truly couldn't have done this without him, but I know he will never see it that way. He will just find a way to invalidate all of his hard work, but I will always remember this as the tournament it took a team to win. I will forever be grateful for what they all did for me.
All of the contestants leave. Some heading home, while others to the Anderson's house for an after tournament party. I was the last player able to leave since I had to stay back and take pictures. The directors, judges, commentators, and media were running around frantically to break down the set and get out of there. I sat there alone watching them scurry around the room trying to finish up. All of them had a task to accomplish but me. I felt invisible waiting for anyone to say anything. I guess I just had to wait for someone to say, "that's a wrap."